Your name: Is it memorable? Does it describe you or define you? Where does it come from and what is its basis?
“Hello, my name is Paul Arthur.”
Simple enough. Almost sounds common. As a matter of fact, it is common.
“Hello, my name is Homo Sapiens.”
How strange is that? Introducing myself by using my scientific name actually creates a general, blank, undiscerning definition of who I am.
So, which do you prefer, scientific or common?
What’s interesting is that my birth name is not my only common name. Throughout my life I have also been called Edd, Paul Bunyan, Surf (don’t ask), Fred, Paullie-Want-A-Cracker and P.A. The funny part is that I have actually answered to some of these names. I can only imagine what kind of “common names” my parents gave me while I was growing up.
Plants and animals in our beloved forests also have a defined scientific name and usually more than one common name that describe their physical attributes in one way or another.
If you ever want a cheap form of entertainment, listen to people describe flora and fauna that they have seen while hiking, biking, kayaking or canoeing.
“It was yay big, with a green stripe and I swear it said ‘yippy-mowen.’ ” From now on, this observer will call that animal the “Yippymower.” I love it.
The description is in the eye of the beholder, and if the beholder is persuasive, the new descriptive name may stick and be used by many far and wide.
Some names can be very direct on how the species is portrayed. How about the Cirsium arvense, also know as the Canadian Thistle, lettuce from hell thistle (yikes), California thistle, corn thistle, cursed thistle (again, yikes), field thistle, green thistle, hard thistle, perennial thistle, prickly thistle, small-flowered thistle and way thistle.
This poor species gets a bad wrap, doesn’t it? Well, it is an invasive species originally found in Europe and Asia. It is found all over the U.S. and is not well liked. Its common names give that away.
Other names aren’t as scathing in their description, but they stick to physical properties or descriptions by association.
One example is the threatened Drymarchon couperi. Its common names are eastern indigo snake, blue indigo snake, black snake, gopher snake and blue bull snake. How does “gopher snake” come in to play, you ask? Well, I’ll tell ya. This snake has been observed for generations using the burrow of the gopher tortoise as a place to hide and hibernate. It spends a good part of its life down in that burrow. People have figured out that the gopher snake relies on the gopher tortoise for its existence. I like how this common name broadens awareness and includes other species.
Common names are proof that people are observant. People are observant and care enough to describe what they see or hear. People care enough to tell others and to even write down there findings. People will care enough to preserve and conserve what they have found. They will do spectacular things to protect what they care about, even if it is invasive or not.
Common names truly aren’t so common. Scientific names may sound exotic and foreign, but I’ll stick with “Paul Arthur” or “P.A.” or “Big Fella” or anything that shows sincere acknowledgement.
Paul Arthur is director of the E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center. The center is an environmental education facility serving students, teachers and visitors with engaging exhibits, instructors and animal encounters. Learn more at www.eowilsoncenter.org/